Things Fall Apart: Summary, Characters & Themes

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  • 0:02 Things Fall Apart
  • 1:14 Plot Summary
  • 6:54 Major Themes
  • 10:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Things Fall Apart tells the tragic story of a Nigerian tribesman who holds on to tradition in a changing world. In this lesson, you'll learn about the basic story and the characters involved, and you'll pick up on a few of the novel's major themes.

Things Fall Apart

One of the 20th century's great novelists, Chinua Achebe, was Nigerian, and his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, tells the story of a traditional tribesman who clashes with British imperialists in a changing Africa. I know; maybe you're thinking that the story of an African tribesman can't be all that interesting.

Well, think again! Have you ever worried that you might grow up to be like your parents? Do you get riled up when a character in a movie is falsely accused? Do you hate bullies but find stories about them strangely interesting? Have you ever found yourself watching masked superstars wrestle each other on television? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might actually like Things Fall Apart.

Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1958, and the novel exposed the corruption and oppression that was going on in British-controlled Nigeria in the mid-20th century. Only two years later, Nigeria declared independence. Coincidence? Perhaps, but there's no denying that Achebe's book brought worldwide attention to his African homeland.

Plot Summary

The book takes place in Umuofia, a set of villages, where the Ibo people live. The first part of the book describes the daily life of the Ibo by telling the story of one particular guy, our hero, Okonkwo.

Okonkwo was a big dude: tall, muscular, and fierce. Our guy started with nothing, but he worked his way up to become one of the greatest men of his generation. In telling his story, Achebe clues the readers in on some important details about the main character, but he's also passing on key points about the Ibo culture. He even wrote the book in English, so he wasn't writing some insider book just for the Ibo people; Achebe wanted to reach a broad audience.

If someone wrote a novel explaining the cultural details of my little town, they'd write about our famous local food: livermush; our big local gathering: demolition derby at the county fair; and our dozens of churches. Achebe makes the same tour of details in Things Fall Apart. We learn that for the Ibo people, growing yams is a status symbol and freshly tapped palm wine is the local drink. We see everyone gather for the big wrestling match, where Okonkwo flexes his muscles in triumph, and we sneak a peek into the tribal religion.

Fate is the idea that the future has already been determined. Things happen because they're destined to happen. But the Ibo believe that fate can be changed if you want it bad enough. They also believe that powerful spirits walk the Earth and make important decisions for the tribe. These masked spirits are called the Egwugwu.

Okonkwo begins the novel as an aspiring farmer who wants to grow enough yams to start making a name for himself. He's motivated by his father, Unoka. Unoka doesn't give his son pep talks or anything like that; he's lazy, owes a lot of money, and he's the laughing stock of the tribe. Okonkwo feels he must succeed, so he won't be known as a son of a bum.

Okonkwo's hard work pays off, and before you know it, he's got a large farm, three wives, and barns full of yams. Life is good. When a hostage arrives from a neighboring village, Okonkwo takes the boy in and raises him as his own son. The hostage's name is Ikemefuna, and he turns out to be a good influence on Okonkwo's oldest boy, Nwoye.

Just as Okonkwo is the opposite of his father, Nwoye is the opposite of Okonkwo. His daddy likes beating people up, and he drinks his wine from a human skull. Nwoye enjoys hanging out with the girls and telling stories. That totally embarrasses Okonkwo, but the hostage kid from the next village over is the tough, manly type Okonkwo had hoped for in a son.

A few years later, the tribe finally decides that the kid has to die to appease the gods. So, does Okonkwo participate and help kill this macho, adopted son he loves? You'd better believe it! The one thing Okonkwo fears more than anything is looking like a punk, so he personally takes a machete to Ikemefuna just to prove how hard he is.

Following this, it's a depressing scene around the Okonkwo house. His best buddy, Obierika comes by to cheer him up, but times go from bad to worse when Okonkwo accidentally kills someone at a tribal gathering. Because it was an accident, Okonkwo isn't executed, but he is banished from the tribe for seven years.

In exile, Okonkwo has to learn a little bit of humility. He pretty much hates every day of his exile, even though he's living well with his mother's family. The one thing that brings Okonkwo out of his funk is his daughter, Ezinma. Not only is she beautiful, but she's like the son he never had. And his real son, Nwoye, is more like the daughter Okonkwo never wanted.

By the time they come back to Umuofia, everything's different. All those yams and beautiful daughters and drinking skulls aren't so impressive to the new power in Umuofia - representatives of the British Empire. Okonkwo has even more problems with the other new group, Christian missionaries. Okonkwo tries to rally the men of his village to just chop the Christians up with some machetes, but the men of Umoufia aren't as macho and violent as they once were. They refuse to fight, and to add insult to injury, Nwoye runs away from home to convert and join the enemy.

Okonkwo rallies all the men of the tribe to urge them to fight. Another tribesman gives a speech about how fighting would lead to the destruction of Umuofia before a court messenger shows up and tells the Ibo warriors to disperse. Instead of going to war, Okonkwo watches these once proud and powerful men just give in.

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